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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This poem is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

The Day After: an Essay on Sophocles’ Farewell to Poetry
Translated By Gabriel Levin
Sharron Hass
Sophocles has a secret. He calls the secret
OEDIPUS AT COLONUS.

There are different ways to keep a secret. The most common being
heartbreak.

Day after day, at the end of working for eight hours
Nabokov had at best only 175 words.

Nabokov isn’t Sophocles. But towards the end
for both of them, like Shakespeare,
heartbreak wasn’t good enough

as the secret’s most common mechanism.
I’m not confused: this isn’t poetry
this is an essay on Sophocles’ farewell

to poetry; and nonetheless I’m writing
in short lines with gaps. This is another way
to sit on a rock like the aged
Sophocles.

A short line is far more similar to a rock
than a long line.
It’s hard to lie. And not only because of dis-
comfort.

Owing to exhaustion.

*

Twenty years after he wrote OEDIPUS REX and thirty-five years
after ANTIGONE

and shortly before his death most likely in 406 BC (before Athens
is defeated by Sparta)
Sophocles writes OEDIPUS AT COLONUS.

Colonus is a deme in Attica, northwest of
Athens. Sophocles names it ‘The white

Colonus’ perhaps due to the chalk quarries in its vicinity. There
he was born, in that deme, sacred to Poseidon

The Horse-Tamer. What prevailed over Sophocles when he had his ninety-year-old
hero, his own age, buried in Colonus?

Survival isn’t a crime.

Claims the homeless peddler
founder of a peddlers’ guild whose emblem is a blanket.

I earn my living from what is most precious to me
reading and writing.

Before summer, in the museum’s basement, as we approached
blind Oedipus’ departure unaccompanied
into the vanishing fields

we left far behind
the wretchedness of theory,
the reading of what’s known beforehand, like
the smearing of the reproductive organs in Greek myths (misquotation from Nabokov)

and there still stood at the end of the field someone
who wanted to poke at Oedipus’s body.

At night I didn’t fall asleep. My legion of sows
gnawed furiously at the gems I flung
at their feet.

But I write what I write
Not to justify this or that
(even if it isn’t possible to completely avoid doing so)

I write in awe and admiration.
I kneel in incomprehension.

I believe with all my heart that writing
proceeds against the biographical.

Perhaps Sophocles also believed
and accompanied his brainchild to the brass
threshold and the pear tree, and shoved him
to the ground –
                         that’s called in certain cases
                                                                     heavens.

*

Can a person love
                          death?

The daughter asks
                     the father

                               Yes the father replies within me abides a love
                                                                                 of death
please pay attention –
                                 nothing else will accept
you

         look
                 how many dimensions exist in the world
           how many stars exist in the world
       how many empty lots
                             exist in the world
                                                  and not one lot will consent to your building
a home there
and death                           is the only thing that will consent
and you must love this
                                    (there’ll be a brief struggle for air
                   but I know everyone gets over it, successfully)
you’re laughing
                     but I’m not kidding
why not love it
                        it follows that FROM HERE ON
                                                     I LOVE THE EARTH

I LOVE WHOEVER ACCEPTS

me

                                                  (Avot and his daughter)                

*

Sophocles is considered the ‘Golden Boy’ of Athens
at its zenith.

What can I tell you about him that you don’t already
know.

Unlike Aeschylus or Euripides
he didn’t stage his plays in the courts of foreign
kings.
He had a weak voice
and consequently concentrated on writing plays
and didn’t act on stage.

‘Draw up close and slowly draw away
the wine’ he told the handsome boy who served him
in one of the countless
banquets.

He liked young, narrow-waisted
boys                                          (come on over and we’ll fool around)

all the actors were men
I suggest not to forget this fact
which undermines the supposedly soothing, partial symmetry

between the face and the mask.
Women who earned a living
could sit in the amphitheater

but not women who were dependent
on men. They stayed at home.

When Oedipus bursts into his wife’s bed-
room, which is now also his dangling mother’s
bedroom, she too is a male actor disguised

as the queen, it’s best not to forget the complications
for when something difficult suddenly turns easy
and simple – -- --

At the end of OEDIPUS AT COLONUS, the exiled king, the blind
beggar, all of a sudden knows how to walk into the grove unaccompanied –

finding the unwavering way, one step at a time
there occurs at the tail-end of complications of blood, fate, and stage directions

a REVELATION

*

The Athenians put their trust in Sophocles.
He served for a time
as ‘treasurer’ of the polis

and was invited to take part in the expedition to Samos
as a military leader. 7 of his tragedies

survived of the more than 100
that he wrote. More than a 100!

Who doesn’t weigh up his gains
and losses morning to nightfall? Who doesn’t want
to fool around with narrow-hipped boys?

there isn’t a single moment in his biography
(to the best of my knowledge)
in which he could have learned from experience that

Survival isn’t a crime

the Greeks, and the Athenians in particular,
effortlessly moving in their insatiable curiosity
from generosity to suspicion and festering animosity
and above all
to the admiration of excellence,

put their trust in Sophocles. His success
was their success.
Even though OEDIPUS REX did not take first place
in 425 BC
Someone named – -- -- won

I suspect taking second place
betrayed a slight shock
on the part of the fervent and boisterous and avid for novelty spectators

the hero, the brilliant and great magician
who solved the riddle of the Sphinx by quick

thinking, the Golden Boy of Thebes
from the day of his birth, for no REASON,
                                                                                        
                                       was chosen

by the gods

                                          NOT TO LIVE
– TO SURVIVE

at the end of his life there were many days Sophocles would have been happy to return to and relive

did Oedipus have a single day to which he would have yearned to return to in his past

(I speak with caution since there is no way of knowing when the hour of happiness may be snatched away)

the gods MADE SURE that if he walked backward
he wouldn’t have a minute in time
free from TERROR
                                              or
   RAGE

but I’d like to venture that the gods didn’t imagine that Oedipus
wouldn’t agree to bear the burden of GUILT

and that he would forcefully keep apart OLD AGE      RAGE
And TIME

what hadn’t been possible until then to separate without the gods

the GUILT from the DEFILED

*

Guilt – I told myself can be carted around it dwells in the blurred intersections,
meeting-places of power: heart, chest diaphragm, liver, mental components, and
courthouses; by virtue of time and inextinguishable rage
it’s possible to bear it along
as though on wheels –
defilement isn’t a feeling or the interpretation of an act.
Defilement is a fact

that succeeds in overcoming time and to remain unchanged. And it
gives rise to terror because it’s contagious.
It’s possible to purify oneself from defilement only on account of the gods
who are indifferent to time. But cleansed of its defilement a body bears the memory of the shock
from the fact that it refused time.    Defilement can lodge in a person as the awareness or
unawareness of having crossed a forbidden limit.
The gods, perhaps because of their reckless sexual and political intrigues, can effortlessly
identify trespassers with their own eyes, and that eye of theirs nails the person to his
innards. But this isn’t so for Oedipus – at the end of his days, at the edge of the grove,
when he seats himself on the rock and refuses to get up

Oedipus understands that his exhausted body is a gift to a place that will agree to receive him

                                                                                                             AS A GUEST
                                                                                              AND FOR BURIAL

HE KNOWS WHO HE IS – He can gauge
his own strengths. The significance borne by his words and actions.

He’s capable of blessing and he’s capable of cursing. He is no longer able to harm himself nor to surprise himself.

HE IS NO LONGER AFRAID OF HIMSELF.

*

Some thirty years ago I read OEDIPUS REX for a course at Hebrew university. We were asked to write a paper on the chorus. This was during the first month of my studies. The chairs were dreadfully hard and leaned to the right, toward a cramped writing surface that dried up my conscious thoughts and orientation in space. The world that opened for me in the books, in the lectures, was immense, and the thirst, industry and panic didn’t give me a moment’s rest. The ‘chorus’, so I felt, was like a sort of mistake. Most of the time its words were only vaguely connected, if at all, to what was going on, the sounds it evinced made it difficult for me to hear the voices of the speakers. I wrote that it resembled a rampart of water between the gods and us; something gets through, but what? I wrote that it leaps away from the plot toward some other place, that it is attentive but also impatient, that its place is always too narrow and that it elevates itself in order to have a better vantage point – but of what? The professor marked my paper 90, and wrote that he’d lowered my mark by 10 points because I hadn’t cited my secondary sources. I then understood several things. That I hadn’t invented the ‘wheel’. But that I had the ability to invent wheels. That there are things I wouldn’t be able to understand and other things that I’d grasp far better, even though footnotes would never be found for such things. And the professor was right in lowering my mark by 10 points – for I wasn’t using the local jargon. But how could he know that I was speaking in a different tongue. I too didn’t know. If he’d given me a 100 and spared me the suspicion that maybe I’d stolen knowledge without saying so outright, I wouldn’t have known that I had within me the ability to invent and to steal.

*

Other heroes died so young.
Hector, Ajax, Heracles…
Few are the heroes in the Greek tradition
that reached old age. Most of them died in battle
or victorious – on their way home

the ninety-years-old dramatist choses an old king
nearly his own age, a king who left him 20
years ago, back in Thebes, on that dreadful day, on the day
he discovered – he, the homeless,
the deliverer of Thebes from the murderousness of the singing Sphinx –
that not a single day in his life was terrible – but rather his entire life
was a form of theater – a locus in which all around him
numerous citizens, and this time the gods as well, are spectators to the narrative
he struggles against
as against a lion or a goddess of vengeance or a clown
and freeing himself from the familiar narrative he releases himself
to tribulations and to form-less time. City-less.
A-polis.

At the beginning of OEDIPUS AT COLONUS, Oedipus asks the question

who will receive Oedipus

(not who will receive me)

when is the moment in which we revert to referring to ourselves
as in childhood

in the third person

and without a weird spasm of the name
bound to nothing

*

Suzuki Roshi is lying in bed.
He has no strength left to rise. When the dear student enters, Suzuki Roshi bows his head lightly, and the student also bows.

                                           ‘Don’t mourn over me’

Roshi says looking straight into the eyes of the student ‘Don’t be sorry,
I know who I am’

Is something of the sort similar to what Oedipus says at the beginning of OEDIPUS AT COLONUS:

                                                                   Who will receive
me?

Oedipus is frail. He sits on a rock. The air is filled with the twittering of birds (nightingales). Antigone for years accompanying him on the road describes to him the place they’ve reached. When they left Thebes she was a little girl. Several years have passed since she started accompanying her father, while now and then Ismene her young sister, she too her father’s sister, joins them. It’s hard to say. Maybe twenty. Maybe. Sophocles is very old, at ninety he again reaches out to the family that bedeviled him all his life. He knows, now before his death, he can’t allow or protest against the narrative the incomprehensible gods spun – but he can do something that closely resembles a solution, he can make Oedipus mysterious who doesn’t strike terror – he can once again turn him into the subject of a poem, into someone

                                                                                      who isn’t humiliated by disaster

*

Lyrical poetry is ahistorical, it aims
to stabilize the present moment appearing in the first person singular
with the help of transformation and rupture.
Theater is, I believe, different. It’s hard to know where if at all meaning trails off between
the bodies that are speaking. The instability
allows for freedom of movement, a feeling of expanse
a horizon, and even a glimpse as such
of eternity, which for the most part we relinquish but liken to remembrance and yet
without a pause it’s impossible to accrue value…    

                                                                                              judgment –
and perhaps every so often tragedy will deny us all of the above?

Oedipus stops in Colonus with the help of his daughters, Antigone and Ismene.

The play is fashioned as a triptych, so to speak.
The girls will ruin its compact structure, the way children always
mess up the order. We’ll come to that in due time.
I find it hard to move on, or to put it bluntly, I’m playing for time.
The mystery in Oedipus’ approaching death is the mystery of a miracle.
And I’m preparing myself for a miracle by all-round abstention,
my refusal  to give myself over
impels me to sit on the rock, from weariness
but also anticipation.

Of all the Greek tragedies I’m familiar with, if I’m not
                                                                                                mistaken
this is the only play in which THE HERO DOESN’T LEAVE THE STAGE
and when he leaves, he leaves in order to die.

But he doesn’t DIE. He walks into the grove, unattended,
without anyone’s help, AND DISAPPEARS.
Is this the blessing Sophocles confers on his hero, the hero
from whom he learned that survival wasn’t a crime, but wasn’t LIFE either
and who spared him from dying

‘when we glanced back
                             we saw that the man was no longer present
and only the king was there
                                          shading his eyes as if a horrific sight
had been revealed  
that was unbearable to look at.

                                                                        How the man died

no mortal can say…
No fiery thunderbolt was sent

by the god to destroy him
nor did any whirlwind surge from the sea bottom.’
                                                                                  maybe the dark
                                                              foundations kindly opened beneath him
                                                             for the man was taken away without cause  

for grief
or anguish

but by any human standards


                                                                                            a miracle occurred!

Sophocles doesn’t want to die as he approaches death. Life blessed him
with everything a mortal can wish for

in the blessings of different goddess, in Athena’s blessing
the one who strides to the right of her admirers and protects them from all evil
in Aphrodite’s blessing showered to sweet raptures, the loosening of limbs

in bounteous Demeter’s blessing, who bestows light even in the dark
in Apollo’s blessing, music’s benefactor, surrounded by the muses, daughters of memory
and in Dionysius’s blessing – he who succeeds in wringing water from rock
the one in whose absence it is impossible to overcome any sort of writing block
the one in whose absence theater is an empty shell and neither the poet nor the citizen are free

this is a catalogue of blessings that would disarm any Greek hero

what is hubris?
        to believe that suffering     (and the gifts)
won’t corrupt me

how is it that these blessings didn’t trouble Sophocles
and in creating OEDIPUS AT COLONUS
he didn’t create its negative and provide a victim
so that the gods – who were never miserly towards the poet –
would persevere in their generosity up to and in the wake
of his death –

No. Something else drives him to accompany the accursed hero
                                                 right to the wonder-evoking end.

Nabokov, in a reply that concludes the interview he gave to Playboy
                                                                            Magazine in 1964:

To be quite candid –
and what I’m going to say now is something I never said
before,
and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill:

                                    I know more than I can
                             express in words
                                              and the little that I can express,
                             would not have been expressed,
                                                           HAD I NOT KNOWN MORE.

                                                                                         (Lake Léman, Palace Hotel)

*

Beautiful, white Colonus.
Here the olive and the bay and the grape are about to bud
and in coverts of their silver-green leaves – nightingales
sing. Like the onset and close of good years
sowed in childhood, in the blessed awakening to life –
so in the play’s opening and before its end
the grove    glitters       holiness       singing

here the father asks his daughter to inquire of their whereabouts
and the daughter has the all-but-reduced-to-nothing father sit
on a rock
        and a shocked citizen shows up
the daughter has seated the father        in a sacred and particularly awesome place

the father must rise and leave immediately
for the place belongs to those whose name one mustn’t pronounce
the most dreadful of all goddesses

                                                                 Oedipus refuses

he recognizes the place.
It is his plot of land.
Here he will be received – here he will die.

The daughter seats her father-brother on the rock in the grove sacred to the goddesses who avenge the murder of family relatives. A father isn’t a relative from their point of view, but a brother is. Certainly a sister. Their loyalty lies with the mother and her children. They are the primeval goddesses who emerged from the earth as the world was formed in the aftermath of a lengthy muddle of pacts and violence in the family. These are the darksome Erinyes created from the blood that spattered on the ground when the little son cut with an iron sickle the sex of his big father.




He who slept with his mother and murdered his father out of a lack of knowledge
is led by his sister who is his daughter to rest on a rock in a grove
                                                     WHICH IS FORBIDDEN
TO ENTER


does an impure person turn holy when a place is found for him to sit?

And what is the meaning of a riddle IF NOT ITS REPETITION

In OEDIPUS REX every sentence was a trap
That went and closed in on the king
Right here, in this place, every sentence I utter
Oedipus informs the shocked citizen will have sight

but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we can behold what he utters

We aren’t sitting on a rock
AND WE AREN’T CAPABLE OF UTTERING ONLY THE TRUTH

even the chorus when asked to describe Oedipus leans
its imagination on the rock where he is sitting
and compares him to a promontory battered from all sides by winds and mighty waters

The grove is peaceful. The sleep of the dreadful goddesses hasn’t been disturbed.
Like a lizard it isn’t possible to distinguish THE REMNANT whose name is Oedipus
from the rock.

But wait till he opens his mouth. For when Oedipus-the-remnant opens his mouth it is
as if the earth opens its mouth, as if the unmentionable goddesses – who with supreme
effort received a second name, The Kindly Ones –
had their faces revealed, the faces
of children who never grew up, and only aged. Just wait for Oedipus to open his mouth
– who’d like to be in the presence of the one whom every word uttered has sight.

Heavy as time that upends meaning, heavy as suffering,
like his rage, like his patience – what by nature has no place, found its place
in turning utterly into sight, and vanishing.

Before dying, Sophocles wishes for the last time to exchange gifts:
a moment before Athens defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars
the old poet desires to bestow upon the city that raised him and in which
he sprung as an eternal wonder boy
a vision beneficial to itself, a vision of its own enormous potential
let not the city forget that the pinnacle of the humane is no different from the godly
when the homeless arrived and sought out refuge – the king went out of his way,
he halts the ritual to Poseidon Tamer of Horses –
and defends the defenseless
Theseus legendary king of Athens offers refuge without demanding
anything in return to the beggar who bears with him, at all times, the danger
of a plague – now turned into a blessing to whomever will receive me

Sophocles wishes to subjugate
our imagination, as well as the city’s,
for we no longer treat ourselves kindly
between dreams-of-delusional grandeur and nightmarish-defeat
we’ve forgotten
how difficult it is to bless – in all seriousness – our birth-
                                                                                place,
a place that didn’t always provide and didn’t always defend us

and he also wants to bestow on Oedipus one last gift
he whom he turned years ago into a music-box that sang to the cold
and merciless divine voice

he is about to give back to Oedipus his strength as a magician – and when Oedipus will
perform the final and most difficult of magical acts,
causing himself to disappear from the stage

the demesne of Colonus will turn sacred, the demesne of Athens,
all lands far and wide
And Sophocles will learn to die
   (WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING? WHEN WILL YOU LEARN TO DIE ALREADY
Hanoch Levin asks his mother)

*

Greek theater (which in fact no one knows how it came into being and hence I would like to stick to Nietzsche’s compelling version wherein the beginning of the theater originated in the chorus of satyrs, satiated in sexual energy, crossbreeding between goats and horses and men)

developed in the beginning of the sixth-century BC, at the same time as Athenian democracy. Two inspiring inventions that needed each other to live.

Perhaps it was the theater, the desired and popular entertainment in Athens that assured the citizens in the most complicated fashion possible that they wouldn’t turn into the rabble. What is the rabble?

Citizens who spurned their capacity to say what they          really
                                                                                     felt,
spurned so much and for such a long time,
                                                               until they can only feel what the majority feels.

And the Athenian spectators knew that the body can discover a great deal but that the laws of the soul were slippery, errant.    

Democracy doesn’t shy away from changing moods.
The tyrant asks to stop the wandering of the soul in the wind.       
Greek theater was dedicated to Dionysus, the god who was ignorant
of where the spirit might wander with its next gulp.
But in order to disclose the extremity of the mind – the same tales of heroes and heroines from the past were repeatedly restaged, each time the plot changed, once Antigone was buried alive and her lover took his life; then again, in the hand of a different dramatist, she celebrated her marriage with Hyman her lover, and bore him a boy.
You understand – things didn’t occur only once, and that’s that.

Sometimes they did.
But for the most part, they didn’t.

The old Sophocles doesn’t rewrite OEDIPUS REX.
He can’t change fate.
He can understand it differently.
There were apparently fourteen plays called ‘Oedipus’by
other dramatists.

None are in our hands.
It appears that only Sophocles wrote a play on Oedipus in old age.
A play in which there is a struggle over the hero’s body.

It’s a timeworn subject. As old as tales themselves,
a struggle over the hero’s body.
But it’s the first time the struggle takes place while the hero
is still alive, and his body is a wreck.

Even if I’m stalling I no longer have any choice.
I must go back in time.
I must talk about voices.
It’s easier to talk about sights.
But in the place where everything in the end turns into sight –
the voice is decisive.

Please – someone – I’m need some help.
How does one disclose an open
   secret –

In writing OEDIPUS REX
Sophocles created a vehicle, a music box, a shell, a trap
in which the divine hears the human.

Listen carefully.
The audience isn’t laughing.
The audience would now rather be at a distance of two or three days
from here, when comedies are staged at the end of the festival,
after the tragedies and the Satyr plays.
The audience would rather be at the moment in which the soul isn’t put to test.

But at the current moment there isn’t another place.
Sight blocks off all sides.
This is Greek theater –
                                      You are seen seeing

Sophocles shuts the audience off from above and from the sides the invisible second side of the shell, the shape in which the theater is formed

now sight turns into hearing, language into vision

and if for a moment we think that the trap is going to shut down on    
                                                                                                         the king

that as spectators we have an advantage – that the well-known irony is on our side
everything that’s said isn’t what is said
when we hear the king say

                                                                          I know that you are all ill
                                          And though ill, none of you is as ill as I.
                                      Each one of you bears his pain by himself
                                And on no other, but my soul mourns
                 Equally for the city      and for myself       and for you

                                                                                 (OEDIPUS REX, ll.60–64)
  
                                         –  are we not entrapped as well!  

Who can in fact say what he is saying? Will we ever know what our own mouths utter?

How are we going to get out of here?
How is he  going to get out of this?
Is it possible to get out of this?

We sit on all sides and observe how we are seen while we hear the doubled voice. The king who claims that he is the deliverer is the city’s ravager. The king who announces that once he finds the previous king’s murderer he will sentence him to exile and death – at that moment decrees the verdict. The king who turns to his wife with affection doesn’t know that she is his mother who would have had him killed at birth. Shall I go on? Who wants to go on this way – at first it seemed as if we’d received a gift – we know, we know so much that we even manage to hear how the space contracts, contracts and closes in on the deliverer who is the innocent criminal. And yes, we want to see the disaster reach its end, for we will then be outside of it, outside of the disaster, we’ll understand how we managed to slip away, but how will we know, if we ever do escape, if the gift that was given to us by Sophocles is to be in a position of forbidden knowledge, a knowledge restricted to the gods, to a prophet, and to a servant who fled into the hills out of fear. We alone in the company of the gods hear at last how they apparently hear us. We swear by what is most precious to us, curse and swear, love and console, write to the papers, write a play, and all this time, in which we’re whelmed with feelings of truth and rage and tenderness –a different pattern is formed, a different note struck, – and if it seems that there is a witness who can sound back to us our words: we’re mistaken!

Only poetry and dance can transport us to that strange place in which feelings like pity and fear can undergo purification. What is the meaning of unalloyed fear and what is the meaning of unalloyed pity? The occasions when I was frightened and pitiful were occasions in which I was scared and ended up all hunched over. I didn’t stand upright at such moments. I pulled through, because time rescued me. But that fear and those feelings of pity – never left me. They’re dormant, and they’re only waiting to raise their heads again. If only I let them. How not to let them? Maybe with the promise that the soul can go on wandering

and it is easiest for it to wander
if accompanied by song and dance.

What is the one thing that can endure over time the rollicking laughter of the gods. Can you hear them? They hear our language, our speculations as to what might be the right course to take – and laugh.

We’re their theatre.

That’s why we’re here.

To gladden their hearts.

And they don’t distinguish between our sufferings and joys – we seem to them distorted in the same measure. Full of frenzy and destruction.

We wrench ourselves out of shape and they applaud.

How to get out of this?

Only by giving shape to the spell of time is there a chance that the event won’t destroy me.

And should I want to amuse myself – and not to give shape? If all I desire in the end is to set up the form-less, the old, the blind, clad in tatters, filthy, looking like a clod of earth from afar,
who strikes the onlooker with terror…

It’s impossible to believe how much it amuses them.

And it strikes us with astonishment.

Only Dionysius has a cult image that resembles the true face of the god.
 
                                                                                         – the mask.

Perhaps Aristotle was mistaken. Or not. From his description it’s hard to grasp what happens to us while we’re watching a tragedy. Can fear be purified? Maybe only fear of the fear. But even if he was wrong, lack of understanding is our space, and the error is fateful. For without a lack of understanding we wouldn’t be faced with what is unknown-to-us, and we’d be left in a restricted space, delimited by our own size, and in the end at risk of cessation amidst random acts.

*

It’s oppressively hot in summer in Athens. It’s so hot that you can’t see your own shadow and out of fear you want to jump. Hot at least as in Jerusalem. Entirely different gods dwell here and there. In Jerusalem there dwells a god who razed the city as a model of justice.

In Athens there dwelled gods who razed Troy to the ground

(the disaster of a ruined city rules over the Greek imagination)

because that’s what they felt like doing –

and the Greeks didn’t believe there was a secure way to bind knowledge to action

The gods are opaque. There are those who believed they were so opaque that they must be a wild invention – and burned down, while they’re were still playing, the clubhouse (Euripides). There are others who believed they could be influenced, precisely because they weren’t rational, and that they could be swayed by great personal charm and gifts (Aeschylus). And there are those, like Sophocles, who didn’t trust them at all, but he was a congenial person who preferred not to get into an argument, neither with the citizens, nor with the actors nor the gods. Like the rest of the Greek poets – he relied on his own strength and was fully aware when at the end of his life he created an equation in which the human was just as powerful as the Godly.

It’s so hot and there are almost no trees around.

Whoever finds himself to his regret midday under the Acropolis, on the slopes of the Hill of the Muses (there Socrates awaited his death in his cell).

or between Areopagus’s enormous boulder and the Hill of the Nymphs (where there now stands an observatory)

needs shade. Shade and water.

There’s no water.  And scant shade.

For the person on foot, best to stretch out under the olive tree.

The oak’s thick shade entices – and the fig tree in its sweet shade
under both the sleep of terror

only under the silvery-green olive is sleep refreshing

the olive

The great gift Athena bequeathed to the beloved city

And I’d never heard before anything of its kind…

A tree not planted by men’s hands, but self-created
        A terror to the spears of enemies,
              Flourishes in this land –
The gray-green olive, nurturer of children.
        Neither the young nor the old
        Shall destroy and bring to naught,
        For it is looked upon by the ever seeing
Eye of Zeus Guardian of these Sacred Olives
            And gray-eyed Athena.


the elders of Colonus sing when they hear Theseus’s promise to offer Oedipus refuge and protection.

The farmers thin out the branches of the olive so that a bird can fly THROUGH the tree

when Oedipus grasps that he’s the criminal ensnared in a doubled symmetrical trap (Aristotle declared it the most perfect of tragedies because recognition

and reversal occur at one and the same time), which closes in on him until he is completely crushed – he clears out

he trashes his own figure

From her chemise [belonging to his mother/sister Jocasta who’d hung herself]
He ripped off the golden brooches
With which she’d adorned herself,  
And lifting them pierced his own eyeballs,
Uttering suchlike words: No longer will they behold such horrors
As he suffered and performed!
From now on they shall see darkly what they ought never to have seen,
And fail to recognize those whom he yearned to know –
So singing, he struck his eyes with raised hand not once but repeatedly.
The bloody eyeballs soaked his beard, and did not cease
To drip clots of gore, and all at once a dark
Shower of blood rained down like hail.

(OEDIPUS REX, 1268–1279)

The perfect music box cracks and the human voice is released from its symmetry,
creates a dreadful darkness it’s me Oedipus says and his voice
reaches us alone, the gods turn away,
retreat. It really doesn’t concern them anymore,
a deliberate mash-up of one’s own figure.

I shouldn’t have done it he’ll say years later,
in Colonus.
And as it happens in the oldest version that we have, in Book 11 of the ODYSSEY, Oedipus continues to rule in Thebes, he sees and is seen even after he discovers that his wife is his mother. The mother hangs herself.

The day after I completed my lectures on tragedy, something unpleasant happened to me and I told someone who knows how to listen, how was it that someone who’s got nothing can rage just like that at anyone who happens to be standing in his way, to curse, to go completely berserk – how suffering hasn’t corrupted him, frightened him, and I the merest poof and straightaway I collapse on the floor

and she answered, Your telling me has in and of itself released you to some extent from the imprisoning fear, sit – and write on the rock on which he sits

Sophocles, party to the deep feelings that connects patriotism and honor
to the gods, is cognizant

that the wayfarer knows that he doesn’t exist, that he’s nobody

or alternately, when the silence is deep and undisturbed, when he, the traveler, the anchor of time in space – is the chosen

faced with the overwhelming horror of what time will bring – who is better equipped to deal with the unknown, he who knows that he doesn’t exist or he who knows
that he is chosen

years later Oedipus says I’m innocent
and Sophocles stands by him

how do I know that Sophocles stands by him?
he lets the gods speak out to us – almost without intermediary

might one conclude that in the court of justice innocence can only be determined by elimination? Innocence cannot be proven, only guilt

Believe me the king says who hasn’t reigned for years
even if my father knew that I was his son he’d have justified
the ferocity in which I defended myself and killed him

from a legal point of view he’s clean – at the crossing of three roads,
the volatile place in which for a moment
there is a break in the monotonous, the king of Thebes, Laius, thrashes the wanderer with a stick-for-goading-cattle, and the wanderers in a rage no less vehement than the king’s, kills the retinue,
apart from one escort, who gets away

rage and hate and a memory for details distinguish the inextinguishable-
                                                                                                     engine of the heroes

it’s impossible to wear them out
even when they take us by surprise in their love, like Antigone, it’s impossible
                                                                                       to wear them out

in this they are all too similar to the gods

it’s impossible to determine innocence it is only possible to determine guilt
I’m innocent of a crime Oedipus says many years after that
                                                                                           dreadful day

in which he ensnared himself

be kind to your web
footed friend, ’cause a duck
might be somebody’s
                                     mother

Oedipus would croon to his children
a song Merope sang to him, his beloved mother in Corinth

from the depth of OEDIPUS REX surges the voice of
the Sphinx, a sort of Delphi-on-wheels
it’s interesting how poets create a voice-without-a-voice
the Sphinx doesn’t appear in the play and her famous riddle isn’t
mentioned, all we learn is that Oedipus was the stranger
who appeared at the gates of Thebes
after he’d disposed of the singing monster, the same harsh songstress,
who’d threatened to destroy the city
nothing more than that                      

the famed riddle as regards who walks in the morning on
four in the afternoon on two and in the evening on three –
an infant, a man and an old man = a human being

doesn’t appear and isn’t even alluded to in the play
and in fact we don’t have the faintest notion what the riddle may have been

but who’ll believe me anyway
I know people who’ve sworn they came across the riddle
when reading the play and for some reason or another
could no longer track it down

but Sophocles knows how to make things disappear and in doing so to render them
more present

the Sphinx even more than the Sirens, is a peculiar monster
the Sirens entice by promising that they know everything
but the Sphinx is intriguing because she knows something in the tongue of human beings
    that they themselves can’t manage to grasp –

A monster that’s keen on language!
Maybe she devoured children as punishment for not solving the riddle
we have no idea. Sophocles doesn’t mention this.

But the Thebans admire and love Oedipus –
there’s no one who’s smarter and more generous and courageous than him
he’s their savior: he’s the alien solver of riddles
and there’s no need to repeat a riddle that’s solved, as a joke
it’s necessary to repeat it in a new way

from the depth of the play surges
the voice of the harsh songstress from-which-there-is-no-escaping
and from all around the voice of the Pythia of Delphi, Apollo’s songstress,
the priests would translate into hexameters
otherwise Apollo’s words sounded like pure nonsense
the play’s inundated with voices that human beings try to interpret
while the hero speaks in all innocence in the doubled tongue
which in the eyes of the poet emulates more closely than any other the tongue
that delights the gods

at the age of ninety Sophocles bands up with the blind beggar
death is a sort of solution in writing, an answer to the question where
hold back
the knife or the dangling light raised over the meshing
of life-literature

does everyone participate in his own death?
And everyone who lives – lives?

‘Life was impossible’ Suzuki Roshi remarks in one of his lectures. ‘But if it’s impossible
how can we do it’, a student asks. You do it every day, Suzuki answers.

Sophocles strides towards his death and leads Oedipus ahead of him. Both of them
are about to turn into life-less and death-less, heroes,
bestowing security and defense to their presumed burial ground.
The Athenians will name Sophocles at his death ‘The Accepter.’   

A dreadful voice is heard from the heavens

                                          ὦ οὗτος οὗτος, Οἰδίπους, τί μέλλομεν
                                          χωρεῖν; πάλαι δὴ τἀπὸ σοῦ βραδύνεται.
    

You there, you Oedipus, what are we waiting for
You’ve dragged your feet long enough!

This is the voice I’d been waiting for. The voice that splits and cracks  

the consciousness-box belonging to OEDIPUS REX. The voice that cancels irony and doublings is the decisive voice. Unmediated – now, no longer the language of riddles and prophecy, but rather in a sort of language that is part intimate and part neutral, and devoid of any particular loftiness, as if the gods had endeavored to imagine how it might be easiest to hear them – almost something casual, scary in its abruptness, somewhat humorous, somewhat childish, like someone calling up to me from the street, Hey, shake a leg, it takes hours for you to get moving.


Palai they tell him, the gods, you’re tarrying palai, which Aharon Shabtai elegantly translates into Hebrew as ‘aplenty’ but its literal meaning is ‘for a long time’. ‘For a long time?’ When exactly did he tarry?


For years they’ve been calling out to him, trying to have him pay attention to the fact that he’s been chosen, marked. What hadn’t they tried. They made him behave like one of them without his knowledge – like the ancient gods and like the king of the gods himself, the one who’d acted brutally toward his own father and locked him up in the bowels of the lower earth with his sister. A human monster he understood the language of monsters. They scorched his human tongue to make him reveal who he was. And he fled from them – he mutilated his own body, child of bountiful chance, whose parents sought to kill, like the parents of the gods who wished to choke their own offspring. For years they’ve been trying to get him to understand, and now, only now, when he penetrated into the sacred grove belonging to the goddesses whose name is past bearing, whose revealed name is the Kindly Ones, he understands. The darkness is a way, the light is a locus. We called and called you the gods said – we gave you a sign from the day you were born, injured, risible, lame, come to us


there is no longer a doubled tongue in Colonus. We’ve reached a place in which the language says what it intends to mean. Now it is the body that turns incomprehensible, deceiving, fleeing from failing strength to strength, loved, bathed by the daughters, only by the daughters, his stink removed by the daughters     

what is it that you most despise the interviewer asks the aging Nabokov

to stink, to steal, to torture

answers the writer without a moment’s thought

and what is paramount in your eyes

to be generous, proud, fearless

Nabokov again replies, who one day, after searching for hours in the woods for a rare butterfly that got away, burst into inconsolable tears

Oedipus consents to move to a rock abutting the grove of the Kindly Ones.
It is forbidden to speak in the sacred grove.
And he persuades the elders of the place to call the king.
They’re stricken with terror when they hear that the stranger who penetrated their territory is Oedipus.
And later, with the sort of cruelty that is for the most part untypical for a chorus,
they’ll force him to recount his life story,
even though they’re familiar with the tale.
But there is a price to cruelty: they will hear again of his innocence

When Oedipus returns to the grove of the dreadful goddesses
similitude is revealed to him

nothing ever resembled him
the dreadful Erinyes, the Kindly Ones without whom the earth wouldn’t be blessed
those deprived of shedloads of blood revenge in the name of the city and of judgment
out of agreement and persuasion
are turned into goddesses of blessing and mercy, as long as they’re granted honor and assured patrimony

the grove opens and (nearly) ends the play.
These are the gods in whose absence suspension, limit, form are impossible
these are the gods in whose absence it is impossible to feel self-worth,
potency and value not toward the human! But toward the powers
that honored him enough and to spare until he felt they’d crushed and left him empty-

handed. And here he is, in the place in which a miracle
of impersonation occurs and he can see himself at last with distinct
features, framed, illumined
dead
a place where he is contaminated
because we, on the outside, cannot help thinking in terms of limits and surfaces
envisioning in the death of irony and the mysteries of the doubled tongue…
and innocence, innocent as if still unborn

he who staunchly stuck to the laws of the city and the gods – which didn’t help him
as if he were weight-less     face-less      origin-less

the reach of the play, the middle, the sprawl – there is nothing there that is of the
                                                                                                                   Godly
if the extremities are gods in order to set a limit and give shape
the middle-range is the deed and the value
for love is deed
and generosity is deed
and rage is deed
(the rage, the rage that seeps through the same megathumos,
big-heartedness, of the heroes)
and entreaty is deed
and all of them aspire to a purpose
while the deception and the torment have perhaps a small, awful aim
– but they are without purpose

at this level of the play
of the big question ‘who will receive Oedipus’
Oedipus blesses and curses – like the Erinyes, like the Kindly One
he blesses Theseus and blesses his daughters and blesses Athena

and curses Creon who tries to force him to return to Thebes
and personifies in his dead body
a blessing to the city without the honors of burial
and he curses
his son Polynices who will slay and be slayed by his brother Eteocles
sons who didn’t take care of him during his years of wandering

and during the entire length of the play our eyes are fixed on Oedipus, on the grimy
                                                                                                                       figure

resembling the gaping earth,
and only once
does the play glance away from Oedipus and fix its eyes
on the children
on Antigone and her brother Polynices

Oh Antigone – who are you
you who struggled to alter what the Greeks refused to alter
the principle that one should recompense friends and penalize enemies
and you pleaded with your father to listen to the entreating son
and you pleaded with the oldest son to cease fighting against his younger brother

even your father-cum-brother found a place where he could sit for he found
                                                                              that which resembled him,

but you Antigone?
You’re destined for the future tense and the future tense
Sophocles has already buried in the past

in every version known to us of the story of Thebes
The mother, Jocaste, hangs herself.
For a mother there hasn’t yet been found (since then) the similitude

I saw [Odysseus recounts in the Phaeacians’ palace in Book 11 of the ODYSSEY]
the mother of Oedipus, fair Epicaste [= Jocaste],
Who performed a misdeed in ignorance of mind,
Wedding her own son, and he, after slaying his father, wedded her,
Which the gods straightway made public among men.  
He dwelled in splendid Thebe, Lord of the Cadmeans,
Riddled with anguish through the gods’ deadly counsels,
And she went down to the cruel gatekeeper’s House of Hades,
Fastening a noose on high from a lofty beam,
Overcome by her sorrow, but for him she left behind untold
Anguish, as many as a mother’s Erinyes bring about.
                                                                                               (Lines 271–280)

Years pass, at least three hundred, and time which upends meanings, as fate, endows the Erinyes prodigious mercies, and sets Oedipus within their precinct, in the grove, as a suppliant awarded refuge, and only the mother’s legs dangled in the wind over the earth, her head not in the skies

the mother, Jocaste, in OEDIPUS REX, was prepared for a play that no one dared imagine, neither among the heavenly gods nor among the chthonic gods, when she realizes her husband is her son, she asks him to desist from investigating the murder of the king, her former husband, if Oedipus will desist, she, Jocaste, you understand, would be willing, in order to defend her children, to go on presiding as queen alongside him whom she now knows is her son, and to pretend, to hold up a mask, further and further into the future, that he is her lover, her deliverer, the precious father of her children and as long as – -- --

Writing, I tell myself, doesn’t aspire to silence
                         it aspires to prolific speech, which is impossible
to the by now unacceptable, to the unknown

to what is beyond our strength

and at the last minute Sophocles shatters the marvelous structure, the seductions of
mystery and glorious exalted death of the last bourne,
with the help of the girl, Antigone

the children never manage to keep their shirts clean,
a floor without crumbs
the wondrous triptych is a grove – the human parameters – a grove
     is contorted

where are we?
Antigone refuses to remain in Athens,
The guest of the generous Theseus, exemplary
ally,
she returns to Thebes, to the war raging between her younger
and older brother

Sophocles wrote ANTIGONE
some thirty-five years before OEDIPUS AT COLONUS
in view of the play’s strength Sophocles not only took first prize in the great Dionysia,
but was chosen as well to sail as a general
and quell the rebellion in Samos

the Athenians knew no greater honor than serving the polis,
than assuming responsibility,
than loyalty to one’s birthplace
Socrates awaits his death,
in his cell, on the Hill of the Muses
it’s only a coincidence, the genial optician tells me
                                                           close by the Acropolis
but Socrates will refuse to go into exile
there is nothing worse for certain people than to be city-less
Sophocles
knows that he is about to die and sends Antigone to her future
which he already wrote so many years ago

does he assume responsibility as such for his actions – and having no other choice
agree in a state of shock to that which can no longer be altered

does he thrust it into the eternal slipknot of his work
as if telling us –
my work is sealed and autonomous – a law unto itself

or does he create a palpable defect, as a wound
and looking at Antigone from behind retreating
we behold his shame, his deep regret
One must save the children
why do we fail again and again in saving the children

Sophocles knows that he is about to die
his freedom was always a secret
and he buries it
In the safest place, in the hideaway
laid bare to the eye
in OEDIPUS AT COLONUS.


Notes

From OEDIPUS AT COLONUS:
Page 17: Line 3
Pages 21–22: Lines 1648–1665
Page 41: Lines 694–706
Page 49: Lines 1627–28

Page 7: Avot and his daughter. Avot Yeshurun (1904–1992, leading Modernist Israeli poet. His daughter Helit: translator and editor of major literary periodical Hadarim.

Page 29: Hanoch Levin (1943–1999). Major Israeli dramatist.

This poem is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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